Erin Haag: Collaborating with programs that have the greatest impact

Published 8:45 pm Friday, October 29, 2021

Living United by Erin Haag

I came to the realization the other day that United Way has been working on bringing a lens of equality and inclusion to our grant making process. While there’s more work to be done in the area of equality in funding, when I reflect, I’m pleased with the progress and direction UWFC is moving to.

Erin Haag

A few months after I started, I missed a grant deadline. It’s an annual grant that is well known in Freeborn County. Administered through a private foundation, there’s no website, no advertising. Applications are sent out via email. Ninety percent of foundations in the United States are similar. Luckily for me, I was able to pull together something quickly and still be able to be considered. However, it was so frustrating for me, because I didn’t know the people involved, and it was obvious other applicants did. They knew who exactly were the decision makers, how to reach them and would recognize them on sight around town.

Whenever I attend an educational learning session about grants, the message is the same. Build the relationship. I strongly believe in that — building the relationship. I encourage agencies to build the relationship with me — not just the directors but program managers and members of the board. When there’s a grant that comes to my attention, I’ll share the information, and even place a call to make sure the agency is aware and has my support. I’ve spent hours discussing grants and brainstorming with others and reading narratives with an editor’s eye.

For me, this is a central role for United Way to play to advocate and champion our area nonprofits, and help them find funding opportunities. Otherwise, how do we build those relationships ? In an area that is working to actively attract newcomers to our area, how do we welcome those newcomers that may not have the history of relationships? Or — on the flip side of the coin, how can we ensure that relationships aren’t hindering the funding process?

Tradition matters, and it’s important. It’s also important to bring in fresh perspectives. Many of our area nonprofit programs have received significant funding from United Way for decades. While those programs are highly critical to our communities, I wondered about other programs that weren’t applying for United Way funding. I reached out to a few and asked, and was told, “I didn’t know I could. I thought United Way funded these agencies and that’s it.”

In my opinion, that perception breeds inequality. It also leads to complacency. Everyone should have the opportunity to apply for community funding. It’s a team of community leaders that drive the process and make the decisions. Programs should be challenged to hold themselves to a high standard, to constantly look for ways to improve and align with best practices. If a program has been receiving United Way funding for decades, then expectations of that funding is entrenched in their programming. When there is an expectation of funding, either consciously or unconsciously, then the program is at risk.

United Way is not a bank to annually disperse funding for the same programs over and over. While we support and collaborate with programs beyond funding, United Way tracks trends and builds collaborations to address critical service gaps that improve local lives. That work is often complex, multi-layered and brings together partners across the state to focus on Freeborn County. That work sometimes looks like handling the logistics side of a community-wide effort, such as our Winter Gear Drive with the direct referral system.

United Way has been actively inviting new partners to apply for funding. Currently we have three new programs being considered, two of which are with agencies that have never applied for funding from United Way. This is a win in my book.

It wasn’t easy to make the decision to actively invite new people to the table. After all, we’re working with less money than ever before. More programs mean less money to go around — but it also means that we’ll be choosing the ones with the greatest impact. The Community Investment Committee is challenged to assess those programs with a critical eye and an in depth understanding of the role they play in our community. If an agency is willing to think outside the box, to embrace programmatic changes that align with best practices and meet the needs of our community, then those programs are elevated to a higher potential for receiving funding.

In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be announcing the programs for the 2021 grant cycle. Remember, this is a unique grant cycle that will start its normal timeline in January — meaning that in just a few months, there will be another opportunity for funding.

It’s important to recognize that while United Way may not publicly go into the reasons for denial of funding, the decision is not necessarily a reflection of the value of the program in our community. At times, funding requests are received in excess of available funding, leading to difficult decisions. To avoid this dilemma, your contribution is important to the work of United Way and our area programming. To make a pledge, please visit or call our office at 507-373-8670. In upcoming weeks, pledges will be mailed to our mailing list — but we recognize it’s most likely outdated.

United Way is currently working with the Tribune and Shopper to place a pledge card that can be mailed in. Don’t have a pledge card? A simple note will do, and mail your donation to PO Box 686, Albert Lea, MN 56007.

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.